Movie Review – Love Aaj Kal (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
Love Aaj Kal stars Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone as Jai and Meera, bright, attractive twentysomethings from London’s expat Indian community. Early scenes establish their quintessentially modern relationship: they meet at a nightspot, make out, start dating, meet the friends and family, continue dating. They’re in love and seem made for each other, yet the story proper begins with their mutually agreed break-up after two years of contented non-commitment. Meera has a dream job waiting in India and Jai’s career ambitions are focused on the US, so they figure why postpone the inevitable?
Jai is befriended by an older Indian expatriate named Veer Singh who has seen the couple together and tells him in so many words that he’s a fool to let Meera go. In flashbacks interwoven with the main story, Veer (played by Rishi Kapoor in middle age and Khan as a young man) gradually recounts his own against-the-odds love affair from some 30 years before. Veer tenaciously battled poverty and powerful social strictures to win his Harleen. The only thing standing between Jai and Meera’s marriage is their own failure to value what they have together until it’s gone, and a noticeable lack of fighting spirit.
Director Imtiaz Ali entertains and instructs with a light hand. The film is often very funny, at times playing more like a romantic comedy than romantic drama. Jai and Meera are both the cheerful, fun-loving type. They’re sure they can stay good friends after the break-up and behave accordingly; it’s a long time before the loss registers. The flashback, although much more serious in tone than the main story, is lightened by the endearing foolishness of a young man in love, while there are many humorous similarities between the two stories.
The inter-generational contrasts are pointed, but not always to the advantage of the older generation. Veer and Harleen’s mutual devotion and willingness to sacrifice is admirable and an example to the young couple, but the film isn’t a lament for the passing of the old ways. Veer is brutally beaten by Harleen’s male relatives because he has the temerity to declare he wishes to marry her; Harleen is a victim of the persistent custom of arranged marriages for women; dowry is strongly criticized. Also laudatory is the film’s equal treatment of Jai and Meera, both in and out of the bedroom. When they make the same choices in their romantic and professional lives, they are subject to the same criticisms. The problem is their skewed priorities, not contemporary values of personal freedom and gender equality.
Khan is very good as Jai and Veer in his younger version, a dual role that is more of an actor’s challenge than it might initially appear. Jai’s character arc is to become more like Veer, and Khan persuasively conveys that development without merging the two characters. Padukone’s performance betrays her inexperience. Although charming and very beautiful, she cannot match her co-star’s confident assurance. She is at her best in scenes of quiet sadness.
When the music isn’t catchy, it’s beautiful. On the other hand, it’s to be hoped the lyrics are better in the original Hindi. The staging and choreography of the musical numbers is most interesting in the way it is used to differentiate between the main and flashback stories. The main story features fanciful group numbers set to catchy (seriously catchy) dance tunes and dressed up with lithesome backup dancers in extravagant and skimpy costumes. In pronounced contrast, the numbers in the flashback are contextualized as community dancing for festivals and celebrations and feature reasonably realistic choreography and costuming. The film’s most impressive musical number is a lengthy and carefully constructed sequence charting Jai’s mental decline from exuberance through apathy to borderline despair in the final months of his separation from Meera. My favorite though was the simplest and shortest, a few steps danced by Veer in spontaneous, joyous celebration.